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Homages to the South

New York
Isaac Stern Audtorium, Carnegie Hall
02/27/2013 -  
Philip Glass: Symphony No. 7 “A Toltec Symphony” (New York Premiere)
Osvaldo Golijov: Oceana (New York premiere)

Biella Da Costa (Vocalist)
Collegiate Chorale, Manhattan Girls Chorus, American Symphony Orchestra, James Bagwell (Conductor)

J. Bagwell (© Erin Baiano/http://jamesbagwell.com)

“(Pablo) Neruda is our Latin American Bach. My aim in ‘Oceana’ was the transmutation of passion into geometry.” Osvaldo Golijov

“The words of the chant (in ‘Toltec’) had no literal meaning. It was a ritual chant that came directly from the spirit. A liberating experience.” Philip Glass

Mr. Glass, who rightly tries to ignore being dubbed a “minimalist”, sees himself now, more than ever, a composer of “world music”. Mr. Golijov doesn’t have to shun any labels. As an Argentinian Jew who has studied the music of Latin America and virtually all of the Semitic and Mediterranean people, as well as composition with George Crumb, he has alchemized all of this music into his individual métier.

And both Philip Glass’s Seventh Symphony “A Toltec Symphony” and Osvaldo Golijov’s Oceana were based on a transubstantiation of music only partly of their own heritage.

Coincidentally, both of their choral/orchestral works last night, well-directed by James Bagwell, come from Latin America. But both composers look at that continent differently. Mr. Glass, using the language of the Mexican Toltec people, masters of mathematics, architecture, both magic and political ritual. Taking three pre-Mayan Toltec cultural paradigms–Corn, the Sacred Root, and the Mythical Blue Deer–he attempted to put them into ritualistic music. Mr. Golijov eschewed the directly mystical and worked with the rare non-political poems of Pablo Neruda.

Though both composers were attempting a ritualistic metamorphosis, the results were certainly different.

The first movement of Mr. Glass’s symphony, played without chorus by the American Symphony Orchestra, was supposed to exemplify the responsibility we have toward the earth, and it was totally different than any Glass work I’d heard before. Yes, the bass line retained that kinetic repetition. But above that was a rare lyricism, and an abstract contentment, which eased itself into the Glass musical insignias of triplet brass, of the repetition. When the mighty Collegiate Chorale began the second movement–that pre-Mayan chant with a pre-Chomsky language–Mr. Glass actually worked with the simple minor-third notes, changing almost nothing of its simple statement.

This was, of course, his genius, to rarely depart from the original two notes, to deepen them and, with the American Symphony Orchestra, to induce the same hypnotic feeling that one finds in his operatic music. I was waiting for the chorus to depart from the original, in that non-language tongue, but they didn’t need to. Like Jackson Pollock, shoveling layer after layer of paint, Philip Glass deepened the chant to something unearthly.

The last movement had the beautiful verbal explanation of a “blue deer”, something like a Medieval unicorn, appearing to give knowledge. The movement was a powerful chorus with the kind of crescendo which Mahler used in his Second Symphony. I suppose it was to expect an emotional response from the audience, but the auditorium–inexplicably only half filled–applauded by rote, not emotion.

Mr. Glass’s inspiration is generated through constant travel. Mr. Golijov is also a wanderer. but in this case he returned almost to his Argentinian homeland. Pablo Neruda, though, is the continent-wide poet (as he should be), and the poems, about the sea, had an extraordinary language, both in Spanish and composer’s own English translation.

B. Da Costa (© Courtesy of the Artist)

So beautiful are they (and oh, I wish I had space to quote them all), that the music seemed secondary. True, they had the benefit of Venezuela’s most notable jazz singer, Biella da Costa, who half-chanted, half sung the first few poems with orchestra and chorus lending a half-samba beat. It was pleasant but didn’t have the consequence of Mr. Golijov’s great writing.

That changed in the final “Chorale of the Reef”, his a capella tribute to a supposed Bach-inspired cantata. This was plainly a masterwork for the Collegiate Chorale. Virtually no musical movement per se: rather the most closely-knit harmonies, the cumbersome cumulous of the ocean at its greatest depths, the singers sloughing through the waves until, in a gentle harmony of Neruda’s words, “In his vessel of snow, the Argonaut sails”.

Oceana was not at all Golijov at his consciously appealing best. It was difficult, cryptic, and thus, even more than usually rewarding.

Harry Rolnick



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